Dom Deshawn pulls the camera in closer for his revealing new album
The rapper’s ‘Maintainin’’ released to digital services today
Rapper Dom Deshawn has always been a visual creator, modeling releases such as Longest Night Saga, from 2019, after prestige television programs, the album’s tracks unfolding like studio-lit episodes. New album Maintainin’ is similarly ambitious though necessarily less polished, drawing inspiration from cinema verite, where the camera pulls in a bit closer, lingers a bit longer and exacts footage that captures the raw, unvarnished experience of existence.
Written and recorded amid a global pandemic and a renewed civil rights movement, Maintainin’ traces Deshawn’s experiences amid a year of lockdowns, relationship upheaval and the struggle to keep moving forward against these accumulating personal and societal drags. “Feeling disengaged,” he raps on “High Speed," a song on which he struggles to get beyond first gear, a few bars later adding, “Hard for me to even get out of bed.”
Regardless, throughout the album Deshawn keeps picking himself up, keeps moving forward, continually “hoping I can find a smile,” as he raps on “Smilez.”
“To be honest with you, until the fall of last year, my motivation to record and make music just wasn’t there,” said Deshawn, who released Maintainin’ to digital services today (Tuesday, Aug. 24). “I would do things casually here and there, but between the pandemic and dealing with how wild last summer was with the [Black lives matter] protests, I just had to take some time and find some sanity.”
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Amid all of this, the rapper also ended a romantic relationship whose demise was undoubtedly hastened by the pandemic and the attendant pressures exacted by stay-at-home orders, which robbed both partners of outside pressure release valves.
“It was hard dealing with a breakup in the middle of a pandemic, where I couldn’t even be like, ‘Oh, let me go be around friends so I can be around some good energy,’” said Deshawn, who explores the split on “Bulma & Yamcha,” a mature take on which he shoulders his share of the blame for the relationship’s dissolution. “For me, it was like, ‘Yo, as much as this hurts, I think we should step away.’ I don’t ever want to be in a situation where we’re still together and it’s super toxic and it ruins the friendship. I’m glad we ended things where there was no bitterness or bad blood.”
This didn’t make the breakup any easier, though, particularly with it landing at a time when Deshawn didn’t have another shoulder to lean on. “I was only going to her house and my place [during stay-at-home orders],” said Deshawn, who turned to video games and pro wrestling as a means of escape during that time. “So after we broke up, I was stuck inside by myself for two months, where I literally wasn’t going anywhere.”
There was a benefit to this extended quarantine, however, as Deshawn started to again engage with recording, investing in his own studio equipment and beginning work on a series of raw-nerve tracks on which he started to unpack recent life events. “And, I mean, obviously I had a lot to talk about,” he said.
While the vibe could have been unbearably downcast, there’s an undercurrent of hope that surfaces both in Deshawn’s words — on “Above Water” he raps about fighting to keep his head atop the rising currents — and in the beats, which sometimes offer a twinkling counterpoint to the ominous, surrounding skies.
“With older Black folks, especially my parents and grandparents … if you ask them, ‘Yo, how are you doing?’ A lot of times they say, ‘You know, maintaining, hanging in there,” Deshawn said. “That was my rationale for naming the project Maintainin', because there were so many things going on in my life, but I know we’re going to get through this at some point. … But until then, I’m maintaining, I’m getting through.”
It’s an attitude reflected in Deshawn’s decision to follow the song “Fin” (there are those cinematic references again) with the album-closing “Story Begins,” which serves as an after-credits scene, of sorts, pointing a way out of the darkness. “This is not my end,” he raps. “It’s more where my story begins.”
“I didn’t want it to feel all bad; I wanted there to be some light at the end of the tunnel,” Deshawn said. “And, also, for me, it was like I had been through all of this stuff, but I have so much of my story left, and so much life ahead of me. … I know we’ve been through a lot, and things look bleak, but I’m still here. This is not my end.”